On Sunday afternoons I join with a group of elderly residents at a retirement hostel nearby to watch a video. After a cuppa and chat we retire to the lounge. For some time one eager film buff - I'll call her "Jean" - has asked me to find "An Officer and a Gentleman". It is a 1981 film, recently made into a stage play. She hopes to see it when it is put on locally; I guess she wanted to see the original film as preparation. It came out 30 years ago to wide acclaim and rave reviews, and I'm not sure how much of a preparation the film would be. This was my first time of seeing it and I don't want to view it a second time. The DVD cover blurb says: "an unforgettable experience" but concedes "some medium level sexual scenes", "some medium level violence" and "some medium level coarse language". "Some medium level"? If this were "some", "much" would be impossible to stomach. And if this were "medium" the mind boggles with thinking what "high" might signify? Yes, the group is elderly and happier with Rumpole, MASH and Pie in the Sky; but after a mere 3 minutes some knew instinctively that it wasn't their kind of film. The coarse language, the prurient sex and brutal depiction of violence was disturbing, and I sat wondering: Should I abort and find something else?
"Jean" wanted to go on, so we persisted. Could our modest circle of film-watchers gain some benefit from this? I decided not to wait until after the film had run its course. That would be too late. I intervened, pressing the "hold" button, searching for something wise to say to avert what might become a deflating afternoon. I just wanted to help my friends think about what we were watching and what it all means. After all, they all have TVs in their own rooms and no doubt they've seen the likes of this before. So what could I say? Two recent conversations came to mind.
The first conversation had been with my neighbour, a military historian who served in Vietnam war from the 1960s to the mid-1970s. He drew my attention to media reports of the official apology from the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, to the government of Afghanistan after yet another US military "insensitivity". Photos leaked to the Los Angeles Times showed American soldiers posing with bodies and body parts of dead suicide bombers. These had been retrieved from a suicide bomb site by soldier's deployed to "clean it up" after a brutal attack. The media too easily shifted attention from that brutality to the photo-opportunity "insensitivity". But it is not easy even to think about such grissly military work; it presupposes a rigorous discipline and so, before deployment, just as in the film, soldiers are subjected to rigorous, even brutal, training. Experience in the field will often confirm that a level of emotional detachment is needed and such detachment requires concerted effort on the part of the persons involved.
So, recalling the media frenzy, I suggested that we think deeply about what we were seeing in our film. Even if the film exaggerated the brutality, it is not too hard to imagine why any soldier, having collected a suicide bomber's body parts, might have an "desensitized soldier's moment", allowing a photo to be snapped. Who can even think about collecting dismembered body parts from a bombed-out marketplace where 35, 50 or 250 people have been blown away? These US soldiers did not do the right thing. The photos now pose an added logistical problem for the hard-pressed American military. But these soldiers have already been subjected to a training régime that gets very close to desensitizing them before they are "passed" as fit for combat duties. Many, as the film showed, become psychologically unstable. Their ability to make sound judgments is deeply affected. And the film depicts graduation as a prize for learning total emotional detachment from the very obscene violence they are made to sing about as they stomp at the double through the swamps!
I guess some might even try to suggest that given the ongoing "war on terror", in Afghanistan and elsewhere, such training and such total emotional detachment is precisely what is needed. And so what is depicted in this 1981 film will be justified. But at what cost? Just like the justifications given on both sides for the Cold War arms race, this is to expect unspeakable violence. Then it was called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and military discipline becomes equated with necessary brutality. The view is still very much alive and well. Whatever the film's initial intention, one consequence of "An Officer and a Gentleman" is its confirmation of MAD. The brutal ends-justifies-the-means spiral is not only taken-for-granted by latter-day terrorists; the film would tell us that it is psychologically embedded in the training manuals of those deployed to overcome their threat. Are we listening to what this film is saying?
My second conversation occurred with my visit to Jack, an elderly friend who had served in New Guinea with the A.I.F during the Second World War. We have talked a lot about the way governments are subject to shadowy figures pulling strings from behind the scenes. I have lately been reading to him from a book that analyzes the way wars and the munitions industry have become cause and consequence of each other over the last 200 years. Taking my leave recently, I said, "I hope this book isn't causing you any sleepless nights!" He brushed that aside. "Don't worry about me. My days are nearly complete. This just reminds me to pray for my grandchildren."
And so I had something else to say to my fellow film watchers, when I found an appropriate point at which to activate the "pause" button. Indeed, we should join my elderly friend and pray for peace, and indeed pray that those who come after us will, in God's grace, not only be spared the "medium level" brutality that this film has depicted for 30 years, as well as any ongoing threats and counter-threats of those who locked themselves and their opponents into spirals of escalating violence.
As we know more about the kind of "training" which soldiers now undergo, the challenge is to find the way of wisdom that engages this world without desensitizing ourselves further, let alone compromising ourselves by unwise actions. But we may well suffer "desensitized moments". Over the 20th century big changes have occurred in warfare and warfare technology, and part of our responsibility for the future of our life together on this planet is to be aware of this and to note how the incessant brutality has, desensitized us. Think of how film functions in our lives. Some might say, rightly, that "An Officer and a Gentleman" has made its own brutal contribution to that process. I can't disagree. We are prompted to a serious rethink about the kind of people we have become and to find a different path, even when we are living out our days at a retirement hostel.
Jean knew about military life. Her father had served as an Australian military officer in Japan. Since her family lived in post-war Japan for some years, she has a deep sense of the devastation experienced by her Japanese neighbours. I suspect the film was a useful reminder to her of painful things that cannot easily be talked about.
And so we now come to ANZAC day, reminding ourselves of the pain of war that cannot easily be talked about. Let us resolve to pray more persistently for peace, that God's Spirit grant us a vigilant sensitivity to what is happening all around our world, and what has also happened in our lives with our own complicity. Let us turn away from the brutality and as followers of Jesus Christ continue to seek justice, deepening our respect for the difficult contributions made by soldiers sent out as part of this nation's contribution to international justice here at home, in this region and further a-field. As we pray that our sensitivity will deepen, may we also become alert to the way soldiers and their families are impacted by what has to be endured when training, when sent into battle, when deployed in peace-keeping operations, when on leave, upon return and after leaving the service.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the "second Pentecost" occurred at the house of a Roman centurion and there the Holy Spirit was poured out. That may indeed give us hope as we participate in this ANZAC day of remembrance. May the Spirit's many gifts be poured out so that the armies of this world become true servants of justice at home and abroad.
, a project of Bruce Wearne, aims to encourage a sustained Christian political contribution, heeding the gentle and merciful rule of Jesus Christ, the ruler over all the earth's political regimes, who calls all people everywhere to humbly and patiently seek justice for all their neighbours.
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